BOSTON — After undergoing six hours of oral surgery to fix his busted teeth on Monday, Isaiah Thomas spent another four at the hospital to treat the swelling in his mouth on the morning of his sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday, two weeks after her death and three days after delivering the eulogy at her funeral.
That was before his Boston Celtics hosted the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of their second-round series on Tuesday.
“It just wasn’t a good day for me, with it being my sister’s birthday, me being in the hospital for four hours today, and I just didn’t have the energy,” Thomas said after the game. “Once I got around the guys and got to the arena, I felt like I could go. I told them I could, and there’s no way I couldn’t play on her birthday. I wanted to win for her, and I wanted to play well for her, so luckily we got the win.”
Win, they did, 129-119 in overtime. And play well, he did, scoring 53 points — one shy of the Celtics franchise playoff record and the most points by anyone in a playoff game since Allen Iverson in 2003.
The basketball court provided no respite for the pain Thomas has suffered these past few weeks. Game 2 was a brutal battle between two Atlantic Division rivals that turned into a heavyweight fight featuring the Eastern Conference’s two best point guards. Yet, even after literally falling on his face, Thomas delivered the knockout punch, scoring 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including blow after blow to the Wizards’ gut down the stretch to send the Wiz staggering back to Washington.
“That was my first time wearing a mouthguard, so the Shock Doctor worked, because if I didn’t have it in, my tooth would probably have been on the ground like it was in Game 1,” Thomas said after the
fight game. “Because I hit my teeth pretty hard, but it sustained it. There’s no way I’m going to be sitting out, so I would keep going even if the three teeth I had the procedure on would’ve came out.”
To give you an idea of the physical nature of Tuesday’s Game 2, a hobbled Markieff Morris shoved Al Horford into the crowd a minute into the contest. Avery Bradley required treatment on his hip in the locker room. John Wall and Otto Porter both took nasty falls and came up clutching their wrists.
And that was just the first half.
The third quarter saw Thomas draw blood from Porter and Kelly Oubre, and Morris confronting him about it. In between, the Celtics played a video mashup of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” and some basketball highlights on the Jumbotron — a fitting tribute to a game in which Boston was fighting to defend home-court advantage, and the Wizards were scrapping to avoid an 0-2 hole.
Fittingly, the two East heavyweights needed an extra round after Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal (14 points and four assists) missed potential game-winning shots in the final seconds of regulation:
An Oubre 3-pointer gave the Wizards a 117-114 lead a minute into the extra session, but Thomas unleashed a fury of daggers, scoring nine of Boston’s 15 overtime points — including a 12-footer and the foul with a minute left that gave him 50 points, pushed the Celtics’ lead to six, and drew MVP chants from the TD Garden rafters.
His pull-up jumper with 15 seconds remaining gave Boston its 10-point lead — the C’s largest of the night — and served as the equivalent of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston. Isaiah Thomas had written his masterpiece in a Celtics uniform on the TD Garden floor on what would have been his sister’s 23rd birthday. Pound for pound, he was the best player in the world on Tuesday night.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know he had that many points,” said Al Horford, who added 15 points and 12 rebounds. “I all of a sudden looked up, saw 51 and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ He’s just steady, steady, steady, and the credit goes to him for all that he’s been going through — with the tooth and everything. I just don’t think a lot of guys would’ve even played this game, so it’s something special after what he’s gone through the past 36-48 hours, to come out and drop 53, I mean, that’s special.”
Wall finished with 40 points, 13 assists, three rebounds, three steals and three blocks in defeat. He was sensational through three quarters but sputtered late, finishing 2-for-9 from the field in the fourth and overtime, as the Celtics overcame a 14-point deficit to assume control of the series.
First playoff game in NBA history featuring dueling 40-point games by point guards.
— Brandon Anderson (@wheatonbrando) May 3, 2017
If we learned anything from the first quarter, it was that Morris’ ankle doesn’t seem to bother him, Amir Johnson shouldn’t start, Wall is still an absolute monster and Thomas’ new tooth looks good:
TNT showed Isaiah Thomas checking out his dental work via iPhone pregame. pic.twitter.com/pumyKYz1xF
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) May 3, 2017
Despite picking up a pair of fouls in the first 2:20, Thomas scored 15 points in the opening frame, and that wasn’t nearly enough. Wall feasted in those first 12 minutes, collecting 19 points and six assists to score or assist on 13 of his team’s 15 made baskets.
Morris was a beneficiary in the opening quarter, adding 10 of his 16 points on three shots in his first action since leaving Game 1 with a sprained left ankle. There seemed to be some lingering frustration Morris felt from failing to finish Sunday’s loss, and he took it out on Horford early:
The result was another comfortable first-quarter lead for the Wizards — 42-29 after a 38-24 edge in the series opener — that left Boston coach Brad Stevens searching for answers against Washington’s potent starting lineup. Game 1 starter Gerald Green and Game 2 starter Johnson gave the C’s a combined zero points, zero rebounds and a minus-17 rating in their last two first quarters.
Unfortunately for the Wizards, Game 2’s second quarter followed the same script as Game 1, as Boston’s three-guard lineups ran circles around Washington’s shallow bench. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier sparked a rare Celtics run with Thomas on the bench, scoring nine of their 13 points in the frame consecutively to close the gap to 55-53. A minute later, Thomas and Horford returned, promptly turning a steal into a 3-pointer and the first Celtics lead since the opening minute.
Boston was back in business, even if the Wizards salvaged a 67-64 halftime lead. Washington also had plenty of reason for optimism in the second half, especially since Beal — one of the game’s sharpest shooters — finished the first half with just four points on four shots and four turnovers.
Sure enough, Beal converted Washington’s first bucket of the second half, and that Wizards starting lineup — with Wall still imposing his will — put together an early third-quarter 14-0 run that pushed their lead to double digits again. Add Smart starting in place of Johnson after halftime to the list of Boston’s failed experiments trying to slow Washington’s best five-man unit.
Then, add the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth as further proof the Wizards bench is a fatal flaw. As soon as Wizards coach Scott Brooks inserted Brandon Jennings (scoreless again) for Beal, the double-digit lead evaporated on a Kelly Olynyk 3-pointer with 2:26 left in the third. And when Thomas can smell blood in the fourth quarter, he goes for the throat.
“He’s up there,” Wall said of Thomas in the current point guard pantheon, before throwing just a bit of shade on his sparring partner. “They’re a great defensive team. He has the opportunity where he can rest defensively. He doesn’t have to guard. They have other guys who can guard for him, and he saves a lot of energy for the offensive end, and he goes out and does everything they need him to do.”
Thomas sandwiched 3’s around two Beal free throws to draw the Celtics within one early in the fourth. He answered another Beal bucket with a three-point play to even the score with 7:44 remaining, and an Avery Bradley triple gave the C’s a 102-99 lead and a bloodthirsty Garden reason to explode.
“I always dream of moments like this, of winning playoff series, winning playoff games, close games, overtime games in the playoffs, because those are where legends are born,” said Thomas, whose Celtics have now won six straight in the playoffs. “And one day I want to be one of those guys, so like I said before the year started, I don’t know how to win in the playoffs. I’m figuring it out on the go.”
Wall, Beal and Morris stood their ground, staking the Wizards to another two-possession lead as the minutes dwindled, but Thomas and unlikely hero Rozier (12 points, six rebounds and four assists) made back-to-back 3’s to even it at 110 with 1:38 on the clock. A step-back Thomas jumper following Wall’s 1-for-2 trip to the free throw line gave Boston a short-lived lead in the final minute, before Porter — he of the hard fall on his wrist and bloodied nose — drained a clutch 3 to give Washington a 114-112 advantage and put the onus on Boston to counterpunch in the final 32 seconds.
That, too, fell on Thomas, whose hard-charging drive and ensuing 11th and 12th free throws of the evening pulled the Celtics even in the final seconds of regulation. From there, the southpaw put the final brushstrokes on his masterpiece and left his signature on a win in overtime. His time.
“Today is my sister’s birthday,” said Thomas, whose Celtics have a day’s rest before Thursday’s Game 3 in Washington. “She would’ve been 23 today, so the least I can do is go out there and play for her.”
These last few weeks have thrown everything they could at Isaiah Thomas. His heart is wrenching, and his face is wearing the pain in more ways than one. But he is still standing, still fighting, still winning. He will live with these last 17 days for the rest of his life, and he’s making sure we won’t forget, either.
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